As the world keeps turning, as our culture and our lives grow more complex, why do we worry so much about eating healthy? We can come up with no shortage of important concerns. Surely some of them take precedent over the fat contents of our dinner. Sure, unhealthy food might put a dent in our physical health, but to me, in the face of systemic oppression, nuclear proliferation, or any other cosmic evil du jour, reaching for a doughnut seems harmless, even proper. Human knowledge keeps racing along, and as we delineate the meaninglessness of our existence, build flying robots to deliver our toiletries, and tamper with the building blocks of time and space, we might be overthinking everything, especially our diets.
The conscious mind will always devise new, masturbatory challenges to its own existence. For centuries, those in my well-fed minority have had enough to eat that we can choose between tastes and textures, once incomprehensible luxuries. But in spite of this opulence we don’t devour our sustenance or rejoice in its availability, we cook it with less sodium. Now that we have enough food to worry about more than survival, we can’t stop. In today’s world, we’re all aiming towards self-actualization, this word we created, like all other words, to make room for an intellectual universe beyond our observable, biological needs. If life has any meaning, if we’re here for a reason, we’re supposed to find it for ourselves, on multiple dimensions. Regrettably, this intricate thinking justifies the spartan atrocities of paleo diets and juice cleanses. Even worse, it connects dietary discipline and self-worth, skyrocketing rates of eating disorders. It isn’t enough simply to succeed socially, personally, or professionally in today’s world; we all need six packs or hourglass figures, too.
What bullshit! We’re only here to eat and survive, but in our hyperintelligent world, we torture ourselves with trivialities like which hairpiece to vote for in a congressional election or what to write on a co-worker’s birthday card. This isn’t our choice; perhaps regrettably, we can’t just eat, sleep, and reproduce anymore. But if we must preoccupy ourselves with the tough questions in life, or even with the mundane ones we can’t avoid, can’t we ease up when it comes to something as simple as what we want to eat?
The concept of a ‘healthy’ diet is growing exponentially more complex, and so is the array of different people we can become. A century ago, we ate whatever was in season, worked the same jobs for our entire lives, and married who our parents told us to. Now, we switch careers with digital clicks, love across racial, religious, and economic lines, and stress about the enzymes used in different breads. This new swath of personal freedoms is almost certainly better for all of us, but it comes at the expense of certainty. I worry that the murky, philosophical dialectics that lurk behind all our life choices make happiness increasingly difficult to achieve. In balancing our culturally dictated needs to eat kale, read Le Monde, or provide for our families, I think we lose track of our most innate, evolutionary obligations, the ones that can still satiate us, however briefly, in an increasingly insatiable psychological reality.
Eating is the best of our animalistic urges, the world’s original form of hedonism. There are more enjoyable, intoxicating, and fashionable behaviors, but no other vice combines sensory pleasure, distortion, social acceptance, and simplicity so effectively. Eating is inevitable, a required ritual in an increasingly nebulous modern life. Fried chicken and apple pie trigger our dopamine systems the same way drugs do, but with drastically reduced social stigma, risk of addiction, or health hazards. In an age of infinite conscious choice, economists tell us every decision carries a tradeoff. But enjoying a milkshake or slice of pizza will hardly doom one’s attempts to self-actualize. Instead, the catharsis of delicious food may reinforce them.
We worry incessantly beyond our own lives, too. We constantly question and redesign the structures of our world. While the rampant acceleration of human knowledge complicates our understanding of the social world, it is only making our food taste better. Eating, our most essential survival function, is perpetually growing more available, more diverse, and more enjoyable. Culinary traditions regularly collide in new patterns, economic competition ensures that only the best tastes will endure, and humans create an endless selection of synthetic flavors. This is probably a biological hazard, if you care about that sort of thing, but it’s also the clearest example of our godlike knowledge of the planet; we create sustenance out of thin air. In an increasingly human-controlled world, capitalism destroys our planet, globalization destroys our cultural purity, and scientific discovery complicates our place in the universe, but man, do all of these conditions combine to make our taste buds happy. As everything around us grows more nebulous and worthy of skepticism, the simple joy of delicious, non-nutritional food should not be underestimated. We doubt everything about our world and ourselves, including our complicity in these labyrinthine social systems, but maybe we can enjoy it, too, with a batch of warm chocolate chip cookies and a bottle of cold, creamy milk.
My sister and I spent most of our childhood Sundays in our Cuban grandmother’s home, a post-communist haven of fried plantains, Coca-Cola, and fresh-baked flan where we freed ourselves of any parental or pediatric dietary restrictions. Abuela demanded that we enjoy life at its most natural while we bounced in her backseat, sugar-high accomplices to her separate daily runs for McDonald’s fries and BK cheeseburgers, key elements in her brand of euphoria.
Years later, on the precipice of adulthood, lost in a collegiate web of conflicting directions, I watched her cough up powdered nutrient shakes on her deathbed. She laughed about it, repeating one of her favorite old proverbs, hoy soy la sombra de ayer. Today, I am a shadow of yesterday.
For better or for worse, I remember this chemo-riddled proverb every time I eat a salad, even a good one. As I catch my first glimpses of adulthood and maturity, it seems to me that our higher cognitive functions can really suck sometimes. Finding daily joy, or love, or a lifelong purpose – finding our perfect principles and circumstances, our perfect tone and pitch – is damn near impossible. Trying, thinking, exploring – these processes are extraordinarily fun, but extraordinarily overwhelming; the stakes, our experiences in the world, are as high as they possibly could be. The big puzzles and choices in life are undoubtedly made up of smaller ones, like our diets, that we can always optimize and second guess.
But when I bite into a cheeseburger, I don’t think about what type of person I’ll marry or how to fix immigration, I don’t think at all, I just feel, the same way I did as a kid, inhaling French fries and passively listening to my grandmother sing along to the radio. In a world that’s tricky enough already, it seems indefensible for me to overthink warm chocolate cake, extra crispy bacon, or anything else that can bring me such a pure, obvious joy.